In a scene of shocking brutality and depravity, Lester Welch, 33, killed his common-law wife, Annette Jane (Annie) Exline, 57, on Easter morning, Sunday, April 4, 1926. Exline’s body was badly beaten, mutilated, and dismembered when police entered their rundown North Side home.
There was also evidence of cannibalism. Welch was seen by police tearing flesh from Exline’s face with his teeth, a circumstance that led to him being dubbed the “vulture murderer.”
Welch, who was born in Vail, Blair County, Pennsylvania, and worked as a millwright, confessed to police when he was arrested.
Exline, who was born into a prominent Altoona family, worked as a dressmaker as a young woman. By the turn of the century, she was facing legal and reputational troubles related to her involvement with a married man. Soon after, she moved to Pittsburgh.
She and Welch met when he boarded in a home she owned. At some point after that, she moved in with him on Washburn Avenue.
The details of Exline’s murder were so gruesome that women were barred from jury service and even from attending the trial.
Welch’s temporary insanity defense was rejected by the jury and he was convicted of first-degree murder on October 12, 1926. He was sentenced to death on May 26, 1927.
Welch’s appeal, which focused narrowly on jury instructions related to the degrees of murder, was denied out of hand (Commonwealth v. Welch, 291 Pa. 40, 1927). In its brief opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court skipped over its usual recitation of the crime, characterizing it as too “revolting” to describe.
With the Pardon Board as the last remaining opportunity to avoid the electric chair, Welch’s counsel argued that he was “clearly insane” and unfit for execution (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 16, 1928). Finding that Welch’s trial counsel was inadequate and that Welch was insane, the Pardon Board agreed and his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on May 23, 1928. Their decision was supported by medical testimony that Welch had experienced an “epileptiform attack” at the time of the killing.
Lester Welch was transferred to Western Penitentiary, where he died of heart disease on March 17, 1958. He was 65 years old.
Welch is the only person sentenced to death in Allegheny County after the enactment of the 1925 state statute giving juries the discretion to choose a life or death sentence in first-degree murder convictions (Act of May 14, 1925, P. L. 759) and before the de facto moratorium on executions in the early 1960s whose death sentence was commuted.
Every one of the other twenty-one men sentenced to death between 1925 and 1960 was executed. Another commutation would not occur for more than 35 years.
The dramatic decline in the use of commutations suggests that the law worked to limit the imposition of death sentences to those cases that met prevailing legal and public standards of deathworthiness. That a vastly disproportionate number of those who were executed were Black indicates whose crimes were considered deathworthy. With rare exceptions, white defendants convicted of first-degree murder were sentenced to life imprisonment while Black defendants were sentenced to death.